Inspirational leaders are all too rare, but I was fortunate to serve under one immediately after graduating from officer training.
As the commanding officer, he was responsible for approximately 600 soldiers. Shortly after assuming his command, he had taken the time and trouble to learn all of their names and something about almost every one of them — not just his officers and senior noncommissioned officers but the individual soldiers themselves. He could walk around his barracks or in the field, address the soldiers by name and inquire after some aspect of their life. The health of a sick mother, the chances of their favorite soccer team winning their next match, a light and humorous reference to some trouble they had recently been in.
He obviously didn’t know everything about them, that would have been impossible, but he took it upon himself to learn enough to show that he valued them as individual people, rather than faceless parts of a military machine. By virtue of his rank, he was automatically an exalted figure, but he made sure he was never a distant one, nor did he ever make the mistake of trying to curry favor by being chummy; he was far too wise a soldier for that.
As a leader, he was the antithesis of the philosophy of “Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die,” from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1854 poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”
His soldiers loved him for it and, if been called upon to do so, I am certain would have died for him. He was an outstanding leader and the lessons I was privileged to learn from him I have never had cause to doubt or discard.
But it was a regrettably uncommon sort of leadership. In offices and organizations everywhere owners of companies or their managers pay not the slightest attention to the individual people who work for them. I watch them march into the office without much more than a grunt to the receptionist, silently traversing lines of people, eyes fixed upon their destination, unwilling to stop in seeming fear of being tainted by the lowly status of the cubicle dwellers.
In the course of business, they may well talk to them, but it is more often a distant and impersonal transaction, and they make it obvious they are eager to return to the privileged sanctuary of their office. In company social situations, they do not see it as part of their duty to know more about their staff; instead their staff is expected to be nothing more than an appreciative audience for their views.
A friendly greeting to that receptionist with a genuine inquiry as to how their weekend was, an acknowledgment that you’re glad someone has recovered from a sickness, a thank you or congratulation for a job well done is neither hard nor time-consuming. But it can transform the atmosphere in the company. Not only will it have made their day better, an admirable end in itself, but if the company demonstrates it appreciates the staff as individuals and treats them with the sort of good manners that makes the rest of life more bearable, this appreciation will be passed on to the suppliers and customers.
I do not believe you can have a truly great organization without great people, and I know you cannot attract, motivate and retain great people unless you create an environment where they feel respected and valued. Surely, it is unreasonable to expect that someone whose manager doesn’t value them enough to bother saying “Good morning” to them will value anyone else associated with the company any differently.
Julian K. Hutton is president of Merlin Hospitality Management, where he oversees the company's Hotel Management and Distressed Asset Management operations, drawing on 20 years experience in the worldwide travel and hospitality industry. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.